Just after Martin O'Malley announced his long-shot campaign for mayor of Baltimore in June 1999, a half-dozen influential bankers and business leaders pressured the young city councilman to drop out of the race.
His back against the wall, O'Malley dropped a name that was his only ace. But playing that one card changed the whole game, as it has time and time again for some of the state's most powerful public figures.
"They laid out some polling material and said I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell," recalled O'Malley. "I said, 'Well, then you'd better call Rick Berndt and ask him why he's backing a loser. Because I've never known Rick to back a loser.'"
Although he is hardly known to the public, Richard Olaf Berndt, a 58-year-old Baltimore lawyer, has been an influential behind-the-scenes adviser and problem solver for archbishops, U.S. senators, congressmen and mayors over the past three decades.
Berndt is the attorney and trusted adviser of Cardinal William H. Keeler and a keen political strategist and fund-raiser who knows how to pick and make winners, earning him an unofficial nickname: "the political pope of Baltimore," as Del. Howard P. Rawlings puts it.
Often, when the city's powerful or would-be powerful need help or advice, they come to Berndt.
A cerebral, self-assured man who offers what friends call "quiet counsel," Berndt lacks the flashiness or bravado of some in political circles, choosing instead to make his mark in relative anonymity.
Without making headlines, Berndt played an important role in moving the Baltimore Archdiocese into the foreground on civil rights, rebuilding the Inner Harbor in the 1970s, shaping the campaigns and policies of leading Democrats, pushing a major statewide gun control measure and negotiating the huge Inner Harbor East waterfront development.
"If I had a list of the most important people in Baltimore, Rick would be near the top of the list," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law. "He's a low-key person who makes things happen."
So it was when city school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever came to his friend Berndt recently, asking for help in getting a job for James D. Apicella, fiance of Superintendent Carmen V. Russo.
Berndt wrote a letter to the heads of four foundations, asking that they provide funding for a job at Coppin State College for Apicella, a former basketball coach who lives in Florida.
It was the kind of request that's meant to be handled behind the scenes, out of the public eye, where Berndt operates best. But then the letter became public in a Sun article, an unusual and unwelcome breach in 30 years of carefully guarded privacy.
His friends were not surprised that he would try to help a city leader's friend get a job, but some were perplexed that he would do so in writing, breaking a fundamental rule of the game he knows so well: Never write what you can say over the phone; never say anything over the phone that you can say with a wink and a nod.
Berndt met with Sun reporters last week but declined to be quoted for this article other than to address the Apicella letter.
"I was asked to help a number of people who were relocating a good person from [Florida] to Baltimore," said Berndt, weighing his words carefully. "He is a very important person in the life of the head of our school system. I wanted to help."
The letter provided a rare, illuminating glimpse of Baltimore's powerful at work. But it only hinted at Berndt's distinctive role in that network, a private man at the intersection of government officials, captains of industry and the Roman Catholic Church.
Berndt's civic and political power, his friends and others say, flows in part from his association with the church. His longtime status as counsel to Baltimore's archbishops earned him a vast network of connections in the Catholic community, immense credibility with Baltimore's elite - and, like the archdiocese's attorneys who came before him, a coveted seat on the board of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., a symbol of the city's old-line establishment.
Yet his is a largely secret history, unknown to most but the civic and political leaders who have crossed paths with him over the years. Berndt has preferred to remain in the shadows of the public figures he counsels.
"I don't think he wants a high profile. He's avoided it. God knows he could have it if he wanted it," said Joseph D. Tydings, a friend and former U.S. senator. "Sometimes it's easier to get things done when you don't have a high profile."
Berndt, who lives in Roland Park with his wife, Rita, has a taciturn, contemplative demeanor that befits his desire for a low profile. Tortoise-shell reading glasses dangle from a granny strap around his neck, and he speaks in a thoughtful, measured clip, though his blue-green eyes convey an intensity and self-confidence that cannot be missed.
In meetings, associates say, he is coolheaded and doesn't interject himself into every discussion, but when he does speak, he tends to be forthright, even blunt.
Politicians say they turn to him because he has a logical manner of dissecting problems, a sound ethical compass, the backbone to tell people what they don't want to hear, a long list of fund-raising contacts and a competitive drive that makes him a formidable ally.
Friends and people close to Berndt's family describe this driven nature in telling his story: an athletic, earnest and calculating son of German immigrant bakers who grew up making all the right friends - and many of them.
His parents, Olaf and Matilda (Amrhein), ran the Amrhein Bros. Baking Co. in West Baltimore.
Berndt's parents were friendly with another baker who much later would become an extremely wealthy client of his: John Paterakis Sr., now one of the city's most influential campaign contributors and developers.
After attending Mount St. Joseph High School and Villanova University, Berndt went to the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where he met classmate Benjamin L. Cardin and forged one of his first friendships with a political family. "He's one of my closest political advisers," said Cardin, a Democratic congressman from Baltimore.
In 1967, as Berndt was about to graduate from law school, a friend suggested he apply to work with a lawyer named Francis X. Gallagher. It would prove a life-transforming career move.
Gallagher was one of the most respected public figures of Baltimore in his time. He was the lawyer for Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, and the two worked together to advance progressive political causes.
"Frank Gallagher and then Rick Berndt established, I think, very clearly that the church would be in favor of civil rights," said Peter N. Marudas, a friend of Berndt's and chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "And that's very important in this state, which has had a history of resistance."
Gallagher was also an influential player in state politics and introduced Berndt to his friend Sarbanes. Berndt showed that he was a quick study in politics, running Sarbanes' successful first campaign for Congress in 1970.
Another future U.S. senator, neighborhood activist Barbara A. Mikulski, was impressed enough to come to Berndt for advice before she ran for City Council in 1971.
Berndt was devoted to his mentor Gallagher - a charming, gregarious man - who many thought might be mayor or governor someday. But Gallagher died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 43, and the job of running his firm - Gallagher, Evelius & Jones - fell to Berndt, who was not yet 30.
The question of who would take over Gallagher's signature client, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was not as easily settled.
"Every Catholic lawyer in Baltimore thinks he should have that job," said Joseph G. Finnerty Jr., who was a partner with Gallagher at the firm when Berndt was a young lawyer there. "A good number of them attempted to get it after Frank died."
But Berndt won Shehan's confidence and the job of a lifetime for a devout Catholic lawyer.
"Becoming the archbishop's counsel is what made this guy's career," Finnerty said. "This is a very Catholic town, so a person who holds that position has an enormous amount of prestige and visibility in Baltimore, and he was pretty young."
When Keeler moved to Baltimore to become archbishop in 1989, he turned to Berndt to introduce him to the city's issues and people.
"He's a very wise person, a very thoughtful person, and he has an excellent mind. It's not a surprise to me that many people look at him as a problem solver," Keeler said.
To reward Berndt for his volunteer work for the archdiocese, which included raising millions of dollars to repair churches and build schools, Keeler bestowed on him in 1994 one of the highest honors the church can give to a layperson: the rank of knight commander in the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great.
From his prestigious position with the church, and from his early political friendships with Sarbanes, Mikulski and Cardin, Berndt built his career and reputation through three decades as a civic activist - with, his friends say, a single-minded motivation of doing what he felt was in the best interests of Baltimore.
A skillful tactician
In the political arena, Berndt proved his mettle as a skillful tactician - and cemented his place in then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's inner circle - with his spirited campaign for Inner Harbor redevelopment in 1979.
Schaefer and developer James W. Rouse planned to build an L-shaped complex of restaurants and shops beside the Inner Harbor. But the Harborplace project was gravely threatened by opposition from Federal Hill and Little Italy neighborhood activists who wanted to protect small businesses and reserve most of the waterfront for parkland.
Worried for the city's future, friends say, Berndt approached Schaefer, devising a campaign to win a referendum battle.
To win over the people in the neighborhoods, Berndt realized, the proponents of Harborplace had to organize a grass-roots "citizens" campaign and get Rouse and the combative Schaefer out of the public's mind, friends recalled.
Schaefer resisted at first, but he was so impressed with Berndt's tactical planning in winning the referendum that he nicknamed him "the German general." As Schaefer puts it today: "No Berndt, no Harborplace."
Berndt's abilities as a problem solver were called on again in 1988, on the issue of gun control.
Then-City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who was president of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, was leading a statewide referendum battle over a ban on cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials.
The National Rifle Association's allies raised about $6 million, and Ambridge turned to Berndt for help against the gun lobby."[Berndt] called Jim Rouse, and Jim gave us a check for $10,000," Ambridge said. After a few more calls, he said, "We had a bunch of money."
The billboards and bus ads purchased with the $675,000 raised by Berndt and his friends were crucial, supporters said.
A few who know Berndt say his role in politics makes him controversial with some more-conservative Catholics, disturbed that a man so close to the archbishop is also so heavily involved with liberal Democratic figures and causes.
In his relationships with politicians who favor abortion rights, he entirely avoids the issue, on which he is aligned with the church's anti-abortion stance. But at other times, when a politician might be at odds with the church or the church might want to weigh in quietly, he can be an effective go-between, according to people who know Berndt.
"He can serve as a sort of back door to the cardinal as long as it's a back door nobody sees, and he does do that sometimes," said a political operative who asked not to be identified. "In a very delicate role he has been very delicate."
Berndt also fills another delicate role, wielding influence as the man behind O'Malley.
Berndt served as chairman of the mayor's transition team, holding great sway in picking O'Malley's Cabinet. And Berndt's close friend James Smith, a former Schaefer political ally, helped handle O'Malley's appointments to boards and commissions - the patronage jobs once handed out by political bosses.
Berndt's friendship with O'Malley stretches back to when the mayor was a skinny student at the UM law school. O'Malley interviewed with Berndt to become the statewide field director for Mikulski's 1986 run for U.S. Senate; he got the job with Berndt's blessing.
Effort to draft Mfume
The men would work together again more than a decade later, in 1999, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision not to run for a fourth term left a leadership vacuum in the city.
Berndt was a leader of an effort to try to encourage NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to run for mayor. Many of Berndt's allies were desperate for Mfume to run because they lacked confidence in the other Democratic candidates, then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former City Councilman Carl Stokes.
When it became apparent that Mfume would not run, O'Malley approached Berndt in May 1999, just four months before the Democratic primary.
"I went to him and said, 'I want to run something crazy by you. I don't think these guys have what it takes to run the city. I think I do,'" O'Malley said. "We both talked about how hard the race would be. But he said he would stand behind me."
The odds against O'Malley seemed overwhelming to many, because he was a white candidate in a city that is two-thirds black and because he was trailing badly in opinion polls and fund raising.
During that June meeting with the bankers and business executives, O'Malley was told he had no chance and would only play the role of a "spoiler" in helping Bell win the election.
Dropping Berndt's name during the confrontation helped persuade them and many other business leaders that O'Malley was legitimate, not just a gadfly. They swung to O'Malley's side.
"The fact that he was with me in the mayoral race was a very, very important sign that I was for real," the mayor said.
Berndt's powerful network, and credibility, paid off. He leaned hard on Schaefer to back O'Malley and negotiated the key endorsement of Rawlings, one of the first prominent African-Americans to take a risk on O'Malley.
Today, O'Malley continues to rely on Berndt as an adviser, talking to him regularly on the phone and eating lunch with him about once a month.
Legal work for the city
Berndt's 33-lawyer firm performs some legal work for the O'Malley administration - billing it for $92,784, less than 1 percent of the firm's overall business. And some of the firm's clients have had matters before the city.
One client of Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, Mercy Medical Center, is planning an expansion that would be helped by a condemnation bill backed by the O'Malley administration. The bill is strongly opposed by owners of an adjacent building that would be condemned. The mayor said that he has spoken with one of the firm's lawyers about the bill but that his relationship with Berndt had no bearing on the matter.
"He has never asked me for anything," O'Malley said.
The mayor noted that he clashed with Berndt when, as a City Council member in 1997, he successfully pushed to clip 10 stories from the Inner Harbor East hotel proposed by a Berndt client, Paterakis.
O'Malley said Berndt's integrity is the reason that some of the most respected political leaders in the state turn to him for advice.
"Sometimes in politics people tell you only what you want to hear," said O'Malley. "But he's a very independent person who gives you his honest opinion."